Toward a global ethics of nonviolence

Toward a global ethics of nonviolence

Human nature, Gandhi said, “will only find itself when it fully realises that to be human it has to cease to be beastly or brutal”. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Charles P. Webel with Sofia Khaydari

July 28, 2020

The UN’s peacekeeping mission is premised on the Declaration of Universal Human Rights, based on the assumptions that nonviolent means of conflict resolution are preferable to violence, and that all nations and trans-national organizations need to affirm and institutionalize global values. Unfortunately, despite the UN, humanity is far from being delivered from its bellicosity, and a “global ethics” in general, with nonviolence at its core, is far from realization.

To understand the desirability but seeming fancifulness of a “Global Ethics” with nonviolence as one of its cardinal values, it is helpful to examine the theoretical and empirical foundations, as well as the possible shortcomings, of global values in general and nonviolence in particular.

In this paper, from within the framework of Peace and Conflict Studies, we examine the strengths and weaknesses of “Global Ethics” in general and of “Nonviolence” as a core global value and as a conflict transformation strategy in particular.

Many peace theories and nonviolent political movements and ideas are examined, ranging theoretically from Kant and liberalism to Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, and empirically from Brian Martin, Gene Sharp, Chenoweth and Stephan, and Steven Pinker, to case studies of Poland, Denmark, the Philippines, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

In order to legitimize and actualize global peace, based on the value and practice of nonviolence, social and political institutions, economic forms of production and distribution, and legal rules have to be applied equitably and uniformly across the globe. This will be a major task for the peacemakers of the 21st century. But, despite the formidable inner and outer challenges, there is some reason for optimism, in large part based on the successes of nonviolent social and political movements in overcoming tyranny and injustice and in creating emancipatory and participatory democratic forms of individual and collective governance.

“Nonviolence is a means by which the active many can overcome the ruthless few.” [1]
Jonathan Schell

“Anyone who feels, and there are still a lot of people who feel that way, that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a great revolution. President Kennedy said on one occasion, ‘Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.’ The world must hear this. It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence….” [2]
— Martin Luther King Jr.


About 80 years ago, at the height of the Great Depression, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud engaged in one of the 20th century’s most famous epistolary exchanges, commencing on July 30, 1932, when Einstein addressed “the most insistent of all problems civilisation has to face…: Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?”

Both Einstein and Freud, who were “congenital pacifists,” agreed that the selfish and rapacious instincts of political and economic elites contribute significantly to warfare, and, to mitigate this, a supra-national organization with the power to tame these belligerents should be created.

In 1945, the United Nations came into existence in San Francisco, and part of its peace-making and peacekeeping mission was the Declaration of Universal Human Rights, based in part on the assumptions that nonviolent means of conflict resolution are preferable to violence, and that there exist global human values all nations and trans-national organizations need to affirm and institutionalize.[3] Unfortunately, despite the creation of the United Nations, humanity is far from being delivered from its bellicosity, and a “global ethics” in general, with nonviolence at its core, is far from realization.

To understand the desirability but seeming fancifulness of a “Global Ethics” with nonviolence as one of its cardinal values, it is helpful to examine the theoretical and empirical foundations, as well as the possible shortcomings, of global values in general and nonviolence in particular. [4]

This can aid our understanding of human potentials that are ever present but unseen in ordinary circumstances, in part due to the mass media’s obsession with “If it bleeds, it leads” events and their consequent neglect of the many successes of nonviolent resistance, revolution and related forms of peace-making. Since our framework for addressing these questions is generally from the field of Peace and Conflict Studies (PCS), we will begin by explicating the utility of PCS for global ethics in general and the value of nonviolence in particular.

Framing a global ethic of nonviolence through the lens of peace and conflict studies

Peace and Conflict Studies investigates the reasons for and outcomes of large- and small-scale conflicts, as well as the preconditions for peace. PCS allows one to examine the reasons for and prevention of wars, as well as the nature of violence, including social oppression, discrimination, and marginalization, or what Johan Galtung and others call structural violence.

Through the rigorous analysis of peace and conflict, one can also learn peace-making strategies. PCS accordingly analyzes individual and collective violent and nonviolent behaviors as well as the structural mechanisms underlying social conflicts in order to understand and transform those processes that might lead to a more peaceful planet.

In this way, the field is explicitly value-oriented, since it assumes and provides evidence for the claim that peace is (almost always) preferable to war, and the job of peace researchers is not merely to understand the dynamics of war and peace, but also actively to promote the latter.

Peace and Conflict Studies also addresses the effects of political and social violence, the causes of this violence, and what can be done to resolve conflicts peacefully. People concerned about violence are turning to peace education as a means to heighten awareness about the causes of violence and to promote nonviolent alternatives to violent means of conflict resolution.

Central to peace studies, peace education, and peace research is a concern not just with understanding the world but with changing it. This is a bone of contention for academics who espouse “value neutrality and scientific impartiality,” especially by such more conventional disciplines as political science, international relations, and strategic or security studies.

PCS is thus both normative (or prescriptive) and analytic (or descriptive). As a normative discipline, it often makes value judgments, such as peace and nonviolence are better than war and violence. But it makes these judgments both on the basis of ethical postulates (i.e. humans should resolve conflicts as nonviolently as possible) and of analytic descriptions (i.e. most violent efforts to resolve conflicts in fact result in less social stability than nonviolent means of conflict resolution).

The explicit value commitment of peace studies to peace requires another value central to the very definition of Peace Studies—that violence is undesirable and almost always unethical, and that where the same human goods can be achieved by them, nonviolent means are preferable to violent ones.

Accordingly, what distinguishes PCS from most academic fields are principally its subject matter—peace, violence, conflict, and power—its multi-disciplinary methodology, and its aim of identifying, testing, and implementing many different strategies for dealing with conflict situations.

When Gandhi said that the theory and practice of nonviolence was at the same level as electricity in Edison’s day, he was probably right. “Peace by peaceful means” has taken the first step on the long road from being a slogan to becoming a reality.

In part, the dream of peace is synonymous with the globalization and legitimation of nonviolent means of conflict resolution and transformation. To this end, a Global Ethic of Nonviolence is a necessary but insufficient condition, since action, as well as theory, is required to pacify the planet.

Global ethics?

The idea of a “global ethics” is as old as philosophical and religious ethics, and dates back to at least the 5th-century BCE. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, among others, asserted the existence of such universally desirable values as virtue, fortitude, compassion, temperance, self-control, and integrity, among others.

What the Greeks and Romans called “virtues,” unlike some Asian spiritual traditions (most notably Buddhism), did not explicitly include non-violence, but assumed that ethical values were universal, not subjective, and that reason and deliberation were almost always preferable to passion and willfulness, especially when seeking fair and equitable means of conflict resolution. Christianity and Islam may be interpreted in text and in deed as preaching similar virtues, but in practice, like their secular equivalents, bequeathing a mixed legacy lasting to the present.

The obstacles, inner and outer, to “practicing what one preaches,” especially tolerance, love, and doing no harm, are many. Aristotle’s notion of “weakness of the will” (akrasia) captures the difficulty at the individual level, while recent social scientific work highlights situational and political constraints on “virtuous” activity as well.

Millennia after what the German philosopher Karl Jaspers called “The Axial Age” (roughly the 8th century to the 2nd century  BCE in the Greek-speaking, Indian, Persian and Chinese communities), and despite many skeptical, relativist and empiricist challenges and political obstacles, the idea of a global ethics has undergone something of a revival.

The great wars, cold and hot, of the 20th century, and the persistent problems of poverty, injustice, and –isms of all stripes, have spurred the creation of such transnational organizations as the United Nations, World Bank, World Economic Forum, World Health Organization, TRANSCEND and other NGO’s dedicated to nonviolent social transformation, and the like, whose official missions include the reduction of inequity, poverty, disease and related ills, and the promotion of social justice and world peace.

In addition, philosophers, spiritual leaders, many political activists and numerous social and biological scientists have increasingly addressed the “practical” (i.e. ethical, empirical and political) applications of such values as justice and equity. This has led to a proliferation of scholarly and non-specialist discussions of the existence and viability of a global set of values, [5] moreover, one – that while disseminating what the Scholastics might have called “cardinal virtues” (prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude for Thomas Aquinas) – nonetheless promotes respect for most, but not all cultural differences and practices, especially decrying as unethical and illegal under international law such crimes against humanity as genocide, ethnic cleansing and violence against women and children.

What is usually called “Globalization” has played as key role in both revitalizing and inhibiting global ethics. Here, we take globalization to denote all those processes by which the peoples of the world are becoming incorporated into a single, global society. Since its inception, the concept of globalization has spawned competing definitions and interpretations, with antecedents dating back to the movements of trade and empire among Europe, Asia, Africa and the “New World” from the 15th century onwards.

Due to the complexity of the concept, people often focus on a single aspect of globalization—cultural, economic, political, ethical and/or technological.

Globalization is the contemporary guise of what Max Weber, Karl Mannheim, Niklas Luhmann, Jürgen Habermas and others have called rationalization. Most individuals and cultures are now subjected to the advantages and stresses of an increasingly rationalized, interconnected and disenchanted world.

Contemporary capitalism, communications technologies and liberalism are examples of globalization operating at the macro level. While making elaborate excuses and living in bad faith in order to defend oneself and to get by in everyday life demonstrate micro-level rationalization in a globalized world.

The spread of such Western values as pluralism, democracy and the (in principle) rule of law throughout the world has been interpreted as imperial overreach in some quarters (particularly by sectors within Islamic, Latin American and indigenous cultures) or as political, economic and social rationalization by its proponents. But just as economic and technological globalization have advantages (heightened trade and exchange of ideas) and disadvantages (uprooting of indigenous traditions and homogenization of cultures), so, too, does what will be called “ethical globalization” have benefits and possible harms.

Regarding the globalization of ethics and the ethics of globalization, if the dissemination of “Western” values and institutions maximizes equity, tolerance and nonviolence and minimizes injustice, discrimination (including sexism, racism and ageism) and violence, then from utilitarian, deontological and pacifist moral philosophies, globalization produces more benefits than harms. Is this, however, the case?

More empirical research is needed to answer this question, just as the assumptions that there either are or are not “global values” need further validation.[6]

Nonviolence as world-preserving value

“Violence does not mean emancipation from fear but discovering the means of combating the cause of fear. Nonviolence, on the other hand, has no cause for fear…. It is nonviolence only when we love those who hate us. I know how difficult it is to follow this grand law of love. But are not all great and good things difficult to do?  No man can be actively nonviolent and not rise against social injustice no matter where it occurred.”
M.K. Gandhi [7]

Nonviolence is a word found in many contexts. In English, it consists of two words most people regard as negative: no(n) and violence. [8] The first known use of “nonviolence” in English was in 1920.   Nonviolence has two related and sometimes reinforcing meanings:

  1. It can refer, first, to a general philosophy of abstention from violence because of ethical or religious principles (e.g. “She believes in nonviolence.”). This is called principled nonviolence.
  2. It can also refer to the behavior of people using nonviolent action (e.g. “The demonstrators maintained their nonviolence.”). This is called strategic nonviolence.

Nonviolence can also be understood from two related perspectives. First, it denotes the idea of nonparticipation in violent activities because of one’s ethical and/or religious principles. Second, it refers to the active and constructive participation of people involved in nonviolent action to resist an unjust political or social order and to transform the violent status quo into one that is more equitable and peaceful.

There are also two pacifistic traditions that conceptualize and operationalize nonviolence.

Absolute pacifists maintain that there is no goal in the world that could justify killing human and other living beings. Pragmatic pacifists become involved in nonviolent actions if they are important and efficient for political tools, such as means of communication, social movements (e.g., “peace” and/or “antiwar”) or systems of civilian-based defence.

Nonviolence is often misunderstood as mere passive resistance, as an accommodating and non-threatening response to an initial action that is, as Johan Galtung might put it, based on direct, structural and/or cultural violence. However, two of the most prominent 20th-century advocates and practitioners of nonviolence, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., believed nonviolence to be an active “force more powerful,” ethical and efficacious than violence.

Gandhi, for example, considered nonviolence and truth to be probably the most active forces in the world and definitely much more “active” than social and political movements based on the use of weapons. His nonviolence is the nonviolence of the strong and courageous, not merely passive consent of the weak and cowardly.

The most important and well-known Gandhian concept is Satyagraha, which means “soul-force” or “soul-truth.” The pursuit of truth does not imply violent actions towards one’s opponent, but instead suggests patience, compassion and the infliction of suffering on oneself. Gandhi also believed it is important not to comply with laws that are unjust. However, by doing so, one should not break the heads of the lawmakers and their security and police forces. Rather, if one chooses not to obey the laws, one should accept all the penalties coming as a result of acts of civil disobedience. Hence, political Satyagraha entails civil disobedience, passive resistance and non-cooperation.

The Gandhian notion of Satyagraha is closely related to his idea of Ahimsa, or “doing no harm,” which is nonviolent love requiring deep respect, sympathy, kindness and absolute firmness towards all living creatures. Ahimsa implies the willingness of each individual to take the responsibility for reforming the planet and, if necessary, to suffer in the process.

The idea of suffering (or Tapasya) is central to all the concepts developed by Gandhi. Unless one is ready to suffer, his or her commitment to nonviolence is not strong or deep enough. It is important not to shift the burden of suffering to anyone else, but to bear it oneself with dignity.

The necessity of suffering is very difficult for many people to understand and accept. Yet the concept is not altogether foreign to Westerners, particularly to those in a Christian pacifist tradition.

Importantly, Gandhi rejected any doctrine in which the ends “justify” the means. For Gandhi, violence is reactionary: the more violence in the world, the less possibility of revolution. Violence provokes violence by building the foundations for additional injustice and hatred. Violent political extremists often make moral compromises based on the idea that their “better” vision of the world justifies any means.

This concept is in no sense related to Gandhi’s view of the relationship between means and ends. It would be considered foolish and ignorant for one to say “I want to worship God; it does not matter that I do so by means of Satan.” [9]

Martin Luther King, Jr. began to question orthodox Western liberal theology once he became aware of the reality of sin and collective evil at every level of human existence. He still supported the ideal that liberalism is devoted to the search for truth, but he came to realize that liberalism tended to verge on a kind of false idealism in its overly optimistic view of human nature.

Liberal Protestantism, according to King, tended to regard people in terms of their essential capacity for good. According to King, the problem of liberalism was that it overlooked the fact that reason alone is little more than an instrument to justify human rationalizations. At the same time, he never fully supported Christian neo-orthodoxy, which was, for King, too pessimistic regarding human nature. Thus, these two theological doctrines each presented a partial truth for King, who supported their synthesis.

King also believed that existentialism presented a certain truth about the human condition. It points to the ultimate freedom of all people and regarded human conflict as a result of obstacles imposed on our freedom. Like the “young” Marx of The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and the psychological dimension of Frankfurt-School Critical theory, King regarded our existential situation as a result of our alienation from our “essential nature” (or “species-being” for Marx and Erich Fromm).

King later focused on a social ethics dealing, inter alia, with racial, economic, political and legal forms of injustice. He emphasized the importance of the overall well-being of people, both spiritual and material. At the point when King started to search for ways to eliminate social evil, namely racial and violent conflict, he was deeply influenced by the teachings of Gandhi. Nonviolent resistance and Satyagraha became profoundly important to him. The Gandhian method of nonviolence appeared to King as the most potent and ethical tool available to people in their struggles for freedom.

King’s first sustained experience with nonviolent resistance occurred in 1954 in Montgomery, Alabama. He served as a spokesperson for the black movement spearheading the bus boycott, and he convinced many people, including whites, that it is more honorable to walk the streets in dignity than to ride the buses in humiliation. Nonviolent principles of civil disobedience and active resistance became the guiding light of the movement.

King’s later trip to India made him even more convinced of the power of nonviolence. While he admitted that nonviolence does not change the hearts of its opponents overnight, it does give its followers new self-respect, courage and dignity.

Ultimately, King suggested that the choice today is not between violence and non-violence, but rather between nonviolence and nonexistence. He remained confident that the established systems of exploitation and oppression would be replaced in the future by new systems of justice and equality.

Brian Martin suggests that there is sufficient historical evidence to demonstrate that nonviolence can be an effective method of social and political transformation.

Examples of successful nonviolent campaigns, some of which we will discuss in more detail, include the fall in 1986 of Philippines’ dictator Ferdinand Marcos; the collapse in 1989 of communist regimes in Eastern Europe during the “Velvet Revolution” and the fall of the Berlin Wall; and the end of apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s, among others.

Martin also mentions less successful examples of nonviolent resistance, namely the Chinese pro-democracy movement in 1989, and the initial movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi to overthrow the Burmese military regime.

Nevertheless, the track record for nonviolent movements is significantly better than for violent ones.

Martin also illustrates the mechanisms by which nonviolence works. He points out that it is effective not only against less ruthless opponents, such as the British in the context of Indian colonization but also against more brutal oppressors, such as the Norwegian and Danish resistance movements against Nazi occupation. Norwegian school teachers, for example, refused to permit the teaching of Nazi doctrine in their schools, even though many were sent to concentration camps.

Martin also examines Gandhi’s, Donald Gregg’s and Gene Sharp’s analyses of nonviolent resistance. He believes that Gandhian nonviolence is aimed at challenging injustice, but its operational dynamics are complicated.

Gregg, for instance, introduced the important concept of “moral jiu-jitsu,” which is a psychological process by which nonviolent activists take the moral initiative, do not become surprised or suggestible, and also refrain from anger in confronting their opponents. While Gregg’s idea of the psychological conversion of attackers is not sufficiently backed by observations, it nonetheless spurred Sharp to develop his idea of political “jiu-jitsu.” This means that state violence against peaceful activists can be counterproductive, since nonviolent action works not just on its opponents but also on potential supporters of activists and on third parties.

Finally, Martin examines the concept of political jiu-jitsu from the perspective of “backfire” rather than from a more traditional violence-vs-nonviolence scenario. Backfires are contingent, since aggressors usually try to prevent them, while opponents try to intensify them. Martin believes that this struggle over political outcomes can be a social version of the individual struggle of how to respond to an unjust event.

Immanuel Kant contributed greatly to the “liberal idea” of peace in general, via his analysis of the preconditions for peace between nations, as well as to the global framework needed to institutionalize what he called “perpetual peace.”

First, Kant states that “no treaty of peace shall be held to be such, which is made with the secret reservation of the material for a future war.”[10] Kant believes that this would be just a postponement of hostilities, not enduring peace, for peace means the end of all hostilities. He also argues that “no state having an independent existence, whether it be small or great, may be acquired by another state, through inheritance, exchange, purchase, or gift.”[11]

For Kant, a state is not a possession, but a society of independent and free men. To incorporate or graft one state into another is to transform its existence as a moral community into a thing. Kant also argues that “standing armies should gradually disappear,” since they threaten other states with the possibility of war. Their existence impels states to strive to fight with one another with a virtually unlimited number of soldiers. Standing armies are a main cause of wars since their expense makes peace more burdensome.

Kant also desires that “no state shall interfere by force in the constitution and government of another state.” [12] Here, however, Kant admits that it would be a different case if one state is split into two parts, each of which, while being a separate state, would account to the whole. Interference by outside powers in the internal affairs of a state would be a violation of the rights of people struggling with their internal problems.

Finally, Kant suggests that “no state at war with another shall permit such acts of warfare as must make mutual confidence impossible in time of future peace….” [13] These include, for instance, a state’s deployment of assassins or poisoners. For Kant, states at war must have some confidence their enemy’s frame of mind, as no peace is possible otherwise and the conflict will last forever.

Importantly, Kant also supported the idea of a federation of independent states. Such an international organization would lead to the creation of a pacified union of all states, which would be different from a peace treaty in the sense that it would try to end all wars forever, not just one war. This type of union would ensure the freedom of each sovereign state as well as the sovereignty of allied states. Kant believed that this idea of a global federation can be extended to all states and can lead to eternal peace.

Another important Kantian principle is the idea of universal law, which, inter alia, provides the conditions for what Kant calls universal hospitality. Hospitality implies the right of a foreigner not to be humiliated on the territory of another. According to Kant, this form of international hospitality is a human right.

Despite his often “liberal idealistic” ethical and political convictions, Kant also claims that war itself does not require any special motivation, because it is inherent in human nature. For Kant, humankind is regarded as (a special kind of) animal species. However, our bellicose nature can, to some extent, be restrained by our rational wills, as well as by constitutional, international law, and by cosmopolitan or world law. The global establishment and (mysterious) enforcement of legal norms and duties is a necessary condition for eternal peace, according to Kant (and, much later, for Habermas as well).

For the Dalai Lama, the problem of violence is basic to our condition, and so far it has not been solved, either by universal education or by material progress and technology. [14]

Science and technology are capable of creating a certain level of material comfort, but they cannot replace spiritual and moral values, which have shaped the world we know today. For the Dalai Lama, humanity has to focus on these humanitarian values in order to bring about important political, social and economic changes. Compassion should be regarded as essential for world peace, and each individual has a universal responsibility to reform political and social institutions so that they serve human needs.

The Dalai Lama assumes that all beings primarily seek peace, comfort and security. The idea of happiness is a combination of inner peace, economic development and, importantly, world peace. It is, therefore, necessary for people to develop a sense of universal responsibility and concern for all human beings, irrespective of their color, gender or nationality. The happiness of one person or group cannot be achieved at the expense of others. The Dalai Lama suggests that a universal humanitarian approach to world problems, based on compassion, is the only real path to world peace.

For the Dalai Lama, true compassion should be a response to suffering, and it is based on altruism, not personal attachments. We should advocate and practice a kind of wider love, which also spreads to our enemies. If we consider that in the long-term everyone wants to be happy and to avoid suffering, it becomes important to share what we possess with others, as the individual “I” is relatively unimportant compared to the countless “We’s.” We should also maintain calmness and presence of mind in our day-to-day lives.

Like many great spiritual and religious thinkers, the Dalai Lama believes that all the world’s major religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and Taoism, aim at leading their followers away from the negative path of ignorance and toward the path of moral goodness.

All religions are essentially similar because they advocate the necessity of controlling undisciplined minds and focus on a spiritual state that is peaceful, ethical and wise. In order to achieve world peace, all religious practitioners have to promote better interfaith understanding, so that a feasible degree of unity among all religions is created to bring about a global consensus on common basic spiritual values that enhance general human happiness.

Finally, according to the Dalai Lama, since all countries are becoming more economically interdependent, due to globalization, our understanding should go beyond national boundaries and should embrace the international community at large.

Philosophical and spiritual justifications of nonviolence as the ethical and political road to global peace would remain merely theoretical if there weren’t sufficient practical examples of its efficacy in political and social transformation.

Practical examples of effective nonviolence

There is now significant historical and empirical evidence of the widespread, effective use of nonviolent techniques. Despite the fact that the international media cover mostly violent and spectacular events, it is the rule rather than the exception that revolutionary and resistance movements use nonviolent techniques.

There are many examples of successful nonviolent movements in addition to the American civil rights movement and Gandhi’s movement for Indian independence.

In 1986, for example, the government of the Philippine autocrat Ferdinand Marcos collapsed due to the “people’s power” of mass nonviolent resistance. This was catalyzed as a bloodless response to Marcos’s attempt to falsify elections results. Civilians intervened and placed themselves between the armed forces of Marcos and a small group of nonconformists. As a result, Marcos surrendered his power and went into exile when it became clear that his own military forces would not fight peaceful citizens.

In 1968, during “The Prague Spring,” the Czechoslovakian government began establishing increased political and economic freedoms in order to create “Socialism with a Human Face.” In response, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. The people of Czechoslovakia mounted a remarkable campaign of nonviolent resistance. There were no militant actions on the side of the opposition, except for general strikes, work slowdowns, and non-cooperation by government employees in order to prevent the installation of a collaborationist government. After eight months of struggle, a compromise of sorts was reached with the signing of the so-called Moscow Protocol, which allowed most of the reform leaders temporarily to remain in power. However, this was short-lived. It took another generation after the “‘68ers,” the nonviolent “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, finally to replace Soviet authoritarianism with a nascent version of liberal democracy.

The Polish trade union movement “Solidarity” essentially followed a nonviolent path of strikes, work slowdowns, and civil resistance against the Soviet-installed government. In 1989, this strategy eventually resulted in the peaceful transition to a democratic Polish government. Solidarity’s strategy also served as a model for the related emancipatory movements elsewhere in Eastern Europe and in Eastern Germany.

There are also notable examples of the successful use of nonviolent resistance between states. During the 19th century, Austria sought to dominate its trading partner and imperial subordinate, Hungary. The Hungarians realized that physical force would be useless and counterproductive since they were militarily weaker than the Austrians. Accordingly, the Hungarians boycotted Austrian goods, refused to cooperate with or to recognize Austrian authorities, and established their own independent systems of education and agriculture. The Hungarians also refused to pay taxes to Austrian tax collectors or to buy or sell property from or to Austrian traders. These nonviolent resistance actions resulted in unfavorable financial situation for Austria and forced its emperor to consent to a kind of Hungarian independence within their imperial union.

Another example of successful nonviolent mass resistance to foreign invasion and occupation was Denmark’s non-cooperation campaign with Nazi Germany during World War II. Large numbers of Danes prevented the Nazis from seizing 94% of the 8,000 Danish Jews and from sending them to concentration camps. By using creative methods of communication and transportation, the Danes were able to smuggle most of the possible victims of the Nazi regime to Sweden. During the Nazi occupation, in order to defy the German authorities, many Danes, including the king, also wore the Star of David, intended by the Germans to identify Jews

More generally, is nonviolence effective and can nonviolence work at a global level? In order to answer this question, we have to understand what it means for nonviolence to “work.”

Nonviolence does not always succeed in pursuit of one’s short-term political goals or as a means to transform society, though it does so more often than violence and with far fewer victims. As to the improvement of human condition and the preservation and enhancement of life on Earth, it is evident that nonviolence works in the short and medium-run.

Recent research by Maria J. Stephan and Eric Chenoweth demonstrates that nonviolent struggles against despotism and for self-determination are more likely than violent resistance to achieve their political objectives, even against dictatorships and highly repressive regimes.

They studied 323 social-change campaigns from 1900 to 2006. Among their significant findings are:

  • campaigns of nonviolent resistance are about twice as likely to succeed as violent uprisings, even in the Middle East;
  • far greater numbers of people from more diverse parts of society joined nonviolent campaigns than violent ones. This greater level of participation translates into more people who can demonstrate for change, and withdraw their cooperation from an unjust regime. In short, numbers matter; and
  • when nonviolent movements overthrow an unjust regime, the victorious resistance groups are far more likely to establish democracies and protect human rights and far less likely to lapse into civil war than their violent counterparts.

Overall, Chenoweth and Stephan found that major nonviolent campaigns against brutal regimes were successful 53 percent of the time. On the other hand, violent resistance campaigns against state oppressors succeeded only 26 percent.

They suggest two reasons for the success of nonviolent strategies. The first is that nonviolent campaigns are domestically and internationally legitimate, which encourages more broad-based participation. The second reason is that while violent counterattacks by the opposition may also be justified, nonviolent responses to violent attacks enhance popular support by a potentially sympathetic public.

Stephan and Chenoweth also found that nonviolent campaigns are more likely than violent resistance to produce loyalty shifts by security forces and civilian officials. Also, broad-based campaigns tend to undermine the legitimacy of the opponent. State repression of nonviolent campaigns often backfires. An unjust act often results in disobedience by the regime’s supporters, mobilization of the population against the regime, and international criticism of the government.

Moreover, nonviolent resistance campaigns make their leadership seem more open to negotiation and bargaining because they do not threaten the lives or well-being of members of the regime. If resistance campaigns fail to achieve widespread and decentralized mass popular mobilization, it is unlikely that they will evoke international sanctions, as it is more costly for the state to repress thousands of activists who represent the entire population, than to deal with a few dozen violent extremists.

Since the international community is more likely to censure and sanction states for repressing nonviolent than violent campaigns, which makes it more costly for a government to repress nonviolent than violent protest movements.

Thus, nonviolence is not only effective in preventing war and other forms of armed conflict, and in replacing autocratic and dictatorial regimes with less repressive governments, but it also leads to the establishment of social justice, environmentally friendly policies and the protection of human rights.

Global peace

The possible global application of nonviolence leads to a discussion of global peace. The superiority of peace as opposed to war as a means of conflict resolution should also be connected with equitable economic development, social justice and environmental sustainability. These policies set the foundation for the most commonly addressed concept of peace in the West today – the notion of “liberal peace.”[15]

Global peace, or nonviolence on a planetary scale, would be based on such “liberal democratic” values as the welfare of individuals and society, international justice, participatory institutional development, transnationalism and globally accepted legal norms.

In the context of international relations, global peace entails the gradual reduction and eventual elimination of violence, eventually leading the development and transmission of ideals, institutions and policies culminating in self-sustaining peace, both positive and negative. Often, peace is related to an achievable global objective, like the reduction of inter- and intra-state wars, based on such universal norms and the defence of inalienable human rights.

This conceptualization of peace incorporates different, but compatible, ethical and political philosophies.

One is idealism, which, in the Kantian tradition depicts peace as something complete and “eternal,” and, accordingly, probably unattainable. From this perspective, an enduring global peace would incorporate social, political and economic international agreements, ensured by a federated world government.

Such an idealistic concept of peace does not mean, according to idealists themselves, that it should not be attempted. Some pragmatic idealists consider the UN’s attempts at disarmament as a possible way of achieving such a peace.

Another strategy is liberal-realism, which focuses on an allegedly more realistic form of peace, one that is supported and provided by international institutions and organizations on the basis of global agreements and accepted norms.

The main components of this strategy are social, economic and political rights and responsibilities, as well as transnational legal norms and institutions, and by regional organizations (such as the European Union).

One possible problem with this version of global peace is that it is often restricted by geographical boundaries, as not all local actors accept the norms and frameworks produced by such globally-binding agreements.

Perhaps the dominant “peacemaking” strategy on offer today is Realpolitik, or mainstream political realism, which assumes the persistence of a geographically-bounded order preserved by “soft power” wherever possible and by “hard power” when “necessary.”

Negative peace is possible, from this perspective, under a powerful hegemon or institution, whose mission is to manage territorial, ethnic, religious and other identity conflicts. It is achieved by balancing national interests and power in relation to military might. One of the many examples of such a negative peace is the Hellenistic world of the late 4th-century BCE, based on Alexander the Great’s conquest of the ancient Greek-speaking communities and the Persian Empire.

A Marxian way of looking at peace is based on the prior establishment of social justice, participatory political democracy and a socialized mode of economic production. Here, negative peace, or the elimination of war, follows the globalization of positive peace, including the abolition of hierarchical class systems and bourgeois-“democratic” states.

For Marxists, there is a clear need for a (temporary?) violent revolutionary elimination of global capitalism and the states that serve it, in order to promote and universalize the “true” interests of workers everywhere. Only after the violent overthrow of the capitalist world system can peace can be either desirable or possible.

Finally, critical theory (from a Frankfurt School orientation) posits (a la the “early” Habermas and the “later” Marcuse) an emancipatory interest in human liberation from political repression and economic exploitation. Moreover, critical theories more generally support the idea that minorities, women and children must be privileged actors and beneficiaries of “progressive” legislation and “emancipatory” political movements in order to actualize their individual and collective “identities.”

Recognition of these marginalized actors has to be achieved through the removal of hegemonic practices of domination via radical reforms and revolutionary insurgencies. Critical theorists of all stripes, like their Marxian fellow-travellers, tend to conceive of negative peace as subordinate and subsequent to the positive peace they envision of a socialized global world system.

Conclusion: A global ethic of nonviolence or no globe?

A perennial question is whether global peace, both negative (the absence of widespread violent conflict) and positive (the presence of equitable and sustainable social, political, legal and economic institutions), is possible in a “postmodern,” globalized world. One obstacle to global peace is the widespread and usually unarticulated ideological assumption that, irrespective of one’s culture, historical background, political or economic views – “human nature is the same everywhere, can’t be changed, and is inherently aggressive, acquisitive, and unredeemable.”    

Accordingly, from this Hobbesian or Realpolitik perspective, the concept of universal peace is contested and labeled “utopian,” in part because different actors define it in various and ostensibly incompatible ways, depending on their personal interests, identities, political views and socio-economic resources. Therefore, in practice, it seems a difficult and allegedly insurmountable challenge to connect such varied and often conflicting inter-subjective concepts from the many different economic, political and social environments around the world with the idea and actualization of global peace.

In order to legitimize and actualize global peace, based on the value of nonviolence, social and political institutions, ethical norms, economic forms of production and distribution, and legal rules have to be applied equitably and uniformly across the globe.  This will be a major task for the peacemakers of the 21st century.

But, despite the formidable inner and outer challenges, there is some reason for optimism, in large part based on the successes of nonviolent social and political movements in overcoming tyranny and injustice and in creating emancipatory and participatory democratic forms of individual and collective governance.

Given the ongoing existential anthropogenic threats of climate change and thermonuclear war, a global ethic of nonviolence is a necessary precondition of our individual and collective survival.

But is it not sufficient. For ethics without effective political action rings hollow. And political action without an ethics of compassion and forgiveness is blind.

To survive, humanity must learn both to see clearly and to act forcefully but nonviolently.


[1]  Jonathan Schell, paraphrasing M.K. Gandhi, in David Barash and Charles Webel, Peace  and Conflict Studies, 3rd edition (London and New York: SAGE Publications, 2014), p. 508.

[2]   The full citation is: “I want to say one other challenge that we face is simply that we must find an alternative to war and bloodshed. Anyone who feels, and there are still a lot of people who feel that way, that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a great revolution. President Kennedy said on one occasion, ‘Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.’ The world must hear this. It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence…. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.” Martin Luther King Jr., Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution, available at [accessed 16 February 2014]. Reproduced in M. L. King Jr., “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”, in Webel & Johansen, Charles Webel and Jørgen Johansen (eds), Peace and Conflict Studies: A Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 284.

[3]   The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights is available here.

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world

 Article 28:

“Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.”

Article 29:
  1. Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
  2. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”

[4]  The author wishes to thank Sofia Khaydari for her stellar assistance in the research and preparation of this article, particularly for her aid with the section on Nonviolence.

[5] See: Ryan, Cheyney, “The Dialogue of Global Ethics,” Ethics & International Affairs 26.1 (Spring 2012), 43-47; Ignatieff, Michael, “Reimagining a Global Ethic,” ibid, 7-19; and Rodin, David, “Toward a Global Ethic,” ibid, 33-42

[6]  Peter Singer, Ferrell et al, and Hans Küng, among others, argue that there exist global common values, or ethical universals, including but not limited to kinship preference, honesty and integrity, and justice. Only one study I could find, however, which was spearheaded by Küng on behalf of a group of religious and spiritual leaders, explicitly includes nonviolence as a global value (Towards a Global Ethic – An Initial Declaration, Parliament of the World’s Religions; Peter Singer, How Are We to Live? (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995), passim; O.C. Ferrell, John Friedrich, and Linda Ferrell, Business Ethics, 8th edition (Mason, OH: South-Western CENGAGE Learning, 2011), pp. 278-79. And while I could find virtually no empirical documentation of these claims, neither could I find any persuasive conceptual or empirical refutation of them.

[7] M.K. Gandhi in Barash and Webel, p. 507.

[8]  See Barash and Webel,  esp. Ch. 23; Jørgen Johansen, “Nonviolence: More than the Absence of Violence,” in Charles Webel and Johan Galtung (eds), Handbook of Peace and Conflict Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. 143-159; Charles Webel and Jørgen Johansen, “Nonviolent Action and Political Change,” in Webel and Johansen, pp. 267-72; M.K. Gandhi, “Non-violent Resistance,” in John Somerville and Ronald Santoni (eds),  Social and Political Philosophy; M.K. Gandhi, “Home Rule,” in Webel and Johansen,  pp. 272-84; Martin Luther King, Jr. “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” in Webel and Johansen,  pp. 285-88; Martin, Brian. “How Nonviolence Works,” in Webel & Johansen, pp. 292-294; and Schock, Kurt, “Nonviolent Action and Its Misconceptions: Insights for Social Scientists,” PSOnline. Available here. [accessed 18 February 2014].

[9]  Gandhi, in Somerville and Santoni, p. 503.

[10]  Kant, “Eternal Peace,” in Webel & Johansen,  p. 89

[11]  Ibid, p. 90.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  Ibid, p. 91.

[14]   The Dalai Lama, “A Human Approach to World Peace,” in Webel & Johansen, pp. 111-117.

[15]  See Oliver Richmond’s recent books and articles on the idea of “liberal peace.”

If you believe nonviolence and ethics are important matters for the world – and for students of international politics – please show it here:

Charles Webel, Ph.D. is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development, Environment. In addition to teaching at UNYP-University of New York in Prague, Dr. Webel has also recently taught in the honors program and peace studies at Chapman University and the University of California at Berkeley.
He has also lectured at Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford, among other distinguished universities, and is a five-time Fulbright Scholar, most recently at universities in New Zealand and Burma (Myanmar).
He has published many scholarly articles as well as eight books, including the 4th edition of Peace and Conflict Studies (with David Barash) the standard text in the field, The Politics of Rationality, and three books on terrorism.
More about his writings here.

A version of this article has been published in Solidarity Beyond Borders: Ethics In A Globalizing World, Janusz Salamon, editor, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015, 153-169.

3 Responses to "Toward a global ethics of nonviolence"

  1. Pingback: Toward a global ethics of nonviolence | The Transnational –

  2. Hooshang Sadeghi-Afshar   August 2, 2020 at 2:38 am

    The UN was established to stop wars but right from start it had one hand tied behind its back so to speak: Five nuclear-power nations gave themselves the right to veto UN resolutions and thus competition among these powerful states led to a half effective UN which could not initiate dialogue outright with no exception with opposing governments to stop war before it spread in strength. A recent example is war in Syria that could have been stopped 7 years ago when the UN wanted to bring waring parties to reconcile and settle their differences through dialogue but the veto by Russia and China resulted in 7 years of carnage, destruction and more than 2 mil refugees that include many thousands of innocent children.

    “The time for the destruction of the world and its people,” Baha’u’llah’s prophetic pen has proclaimed, “hath arrived.” “The hour is approaching,” He specifically affirms, “when the most great convulsion will have appeared.” “The promised day is come, the day when tormenting trials will have surged above your heads, and beneath your feet, saying: ‘Taste ye what your hands have wrought!'” “Soon shall the blasts of His chastisement beat upon you, and the dust of hell enshroud you.” And again: “And when the appointed hour is come, there shall suddenly appear that which shall cause the limbs of mankind to quake.” “The day is approaching when its [civilization’s] flame will devour the cities, when the Tongue of Grandeur will proclaim: ‘The Kingdom is God’s, the Almighty, the All-Praised!'” “The day will soon come,” He, referring to the foolish ones of the earth, has written, “whereon they will cry out for help and receive no answer.” “The day is approaching,” He moreover has prophesied, “when the wrathful anger of the Almighty will have taken hold of them. He, verily, is the Omnipotent, the All-Subduing, the Most Powerful. He shall cleanse the earth from the defilement of their corruption, and shall give it for an heritage unto such of His servants as are nigh unto Him.” (Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. vii)

  3. F Jahanpour   July 31, 2020 at 2:15 pm

    A brilliant, broad and deep study of war and non-violence. Violence has always been and still is an animal and human instinct for survival. In most animals, violence provides for basic needs and for survival, while in human beings violence has often taken extreme forms, combined with a vicious emotional, religious and psychological delight in inflicting pain and suffering on others. Wars have been the collective manifestation of tribal, national or international violence.

    However, with the discovery of modern means of mass slaughter, especially weapons of mass destruction that can end the entire human civilisation, violence is no longer a rational or viable option. We either learn to put an end to all wars, or they will put an end to us. In the modern age, especially since the dropping of the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima 75 years ago next month, war must have been outlawed and regarded as a curse and the greatest enemy of mankind, and any nation involved in war must have been shunned by the rest of humanity.

    This is why collectively we created the United Nations whose Charter in most resonant terms than in any other international agreement proclaimed, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. This is why the United Nations was mandated to achieve “peace by peaceful means”. Sadly, since then, wars have been raging throughout the world with tens of millions killed and injured as a result. So far, we have avoided global destruction, but the nuclear scientists who monitor the Doomsday Clock have put the hands of the clock at two minutes to midnight, the closest we have ever been to global catastrophe since it was set up in 1947.

    This is why it is so important to be reminded of the disastrous nature of war and the urgent need for action to find peaceful means for resolving the conflicts. Otherwise, all of us are doomed.


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